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Coronavirus mental health: how to avoid emotional exhaustion this Christmas

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Lauren Geall
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Feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the last-minute change to Christmas restrictions? You’re not alone. Here, an expert explains how to cope with the ongoing emotional strain of the pandemic.

“When was your last big cry?” is a question I’ve found myself asking a lot during the pandemic. 

It’s a sign of the strange times we’ve found ourselves in this year – on a personal level, we’re all learning how to adapt.

In some ways, we have. Gone are the days when the word ‘lockdown’ was enough to send our anxiety spiralling – as the pandemic has progressed, so too has our ability to cope with the ‘new normal’ we’re living with. 

But then came this weekend, and the last-minute changes to Christmas restrictions.

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Even if you think that the new Christmas restrictions are necessary in the face of rising coronavirus cases, that doesn’t mean the feelings of anxiety, disappointment, stress and sadness that may come from facing that reality are any less painful.

Yet again, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of an incredibly stressful and emotionally draining time – especially when there’s so much uncertainty about what might happen after Christmas – so could we be at risk of becoming emotionally exhausted?

“We’re much better at understanding exhaustion in terms of physical effort and effects than emotional ones. However, mental or emotional activities and outputs also have an impact on our health,” Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author at Ten Harley Street, explains. 

“Just as we wouldn’t exercise hour after hour without a break, we shouldn’t expend emotional energy without respite. Therefore, we must give our emotional muscles rest too so that they can repair, by first becoming more aware of all the emotional work we do on a daily basis, including consuming the news.”

If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety, and find yourself crying at random times throughout the day, chances are you’re not giving your “emotional muscles” sufficient time to rest – and therefore causing yourself to feel emotionally exhausted. 

A woman feeling stressed
Are you feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with all the coronavirus updates? You could be experiencing emotional exhaustion.

Defined as “a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives,” emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.

According to Healthline, symptoms of emotional exhaustion include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Physical fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Absentmindedness
  • Apathy
  • Headaches
  • Nervousness
  • A change in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irrational anger
  • Increased cynicism or pessimism
  • A sense of dread
  • Depression

During the pandemic, one of the main reasons why so many of us are experiencing emotional exhaustion is our constant exposure to the news. 

In this way, while staying informed is obviously important, we also need to make sure we’re taking time away from all the stressful headlines and social media commentary to give ourselves a much-needed break – especially during the Christmas period.

“Reading the news can make us emotionally exhausted because headlines are devised specifically to trigger an emotive response,” Dr Arroll explains. “This emotive response is often fear, so the mind and body are likely to go into fight-or-flight mode, with the associated physiological processes that come with it.

“Without a break from this we cannot go back to a state or equilibrium and may reach a point of allostatic overload, wherein we’ve used all of our resources and are ‘in the red’ as it were – this is the point where symptoms start to appear such as fatigue, headaches, sleeping difficulties and cognitive problems.”

As emotional exhaustion is one of the symptoms of burnout, it’s important to try and manage any signs of it as soon as possible. Crying, for example, could be a sign that you need to take a step back from reality and take some time for yourself, whether that’s via self-care, distraction or mindfulness meditation (allowing yourself to have a good cry can also help to release tension and help you feel better). 

This is especially important at the moment when our stress and anxiety might be coming from numerous sources including the news and our disappointment at not being able to see family.

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If the news and/or social media is contributing to your anxiety in a large way, Dr Arroll recommends gradually building healthy news habits.

“In clinic, I wean individuals off news outlets and apps with a detox plan by first asking them to turn off all notifications, then to choose just one trusted source of news,” she explains. “Next, we set specific times to check the news (usually only once in the morning and evening) and to watch news with others so it can be discussed, rather than in isolation where repetitive and ruminative thoughts can go unchecked.

“Focus on the facts, rather than rumours, from trusted sources such as the WHO website and/or local health authorities.”

A woman on her phone
If the news is making you feel overwhelmed, seek out information from a few trusted sources.

Dr Arroll also recommends looking for the feel-good stories coming out of the coronavirus outbreak – notably, all the acts of kindness making a difference for vulnerable people.

“Instead of primarily focusing on the worldwide (often overwhelming) view, zoom-in and find the positive and hopeful stories of local people who have recovered from difficult experiences. I also believe in the saying ‘look for the helpers’ – there is always human kindness, bravery and grace in very difficult times like this and by seeking out these actions, we can come to a sense of acceptance, even in the face of great loss.

“Be active in honouring these helpers by acknowledging their contribution. Whereas passively consuming negative stories can lead to emotional burnout, anxiety and depression, actively celebrating positive experiences can boost our mood and wellbeing.”

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s junior digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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